Like Scream 4 last year, American Reunion revisits an iconic 1990s teen film this April, banking on nostalgia – from individuals who consider themselves too young to feel such a thing – to win over audiences. I don’t expect it will do well in that regard, but it could. American Reunion performs all the perfunctory routines we expect from what we must begrudgingly call an “American” movie – playing out gross out set pieces and sexual anxiety – but making men in their 30s do them no longer feels charming. It feels gross and slightly criminal. Still occasionally funny though.
The time has come for the American Pie roster’s 13-year high school reunion (a strange timeline acknowledged in passing, and then promptly glossed over). The expected reintroduction scenes find everyone more or less where we expected: Jim and Michelle (Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan) are married with a child, and despite their overwhelming sexual addictions have reached an interminable lull in their carnal activities. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), still the boring everyman, feels only slightly smothered by a married life that revolves around basic cable television lineups. Oz (Chris Klein) is now the semi-celebrity host of a sports program, and feels threatened by his hot young girlfriend’s outrageous sexual experience. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has been living off the grid, and claims to be an impressive world traveler. And Stifler (Seann William Scott) is still a complete douche-nozzle, on the verge of being justifiably humbled by his boss at an important firm of some kind or other.
Unlike the previous films in the American Pie theatrical franchise, which were each about “the next step” in the protagonists' romantic and sexual lives, American Reunion is about regression. The boys, who unfortunately never developed a parallel group of females to provide reasonable contrast to their wild activities (but I digress), are all on a mission to recapture their lost youth. The fact that they’re merely in their thirties is somewhat ignored – and the fact that some of them look like they’re in their mid-40s is certainly never discussed – but their malaise is perhaps understandable, given that their teen and college years were spent occupying an erotic Chuck Jones cartoon. Day jobs and happily married life must be a bit of a downer when you used to spike beers with semen for fun, or regularly attend parties where you could sleep with a wheelchair-bound grandmother by sheer accident.
But their misadventures are even creepier than usual this time around, because American Reunion allows our heroes to play out their wish-fulfillment fantasies in the world of attractive underage teenagers while simultaneously learning valuable lessons about maturity. The contrast is jarring. The plot might have played perfectly well if American Reunion had committed to its depiction of thirtysomething life as potentially satisfying, so long as you remain young at heart yadda-yadda-yadda and open your mind to new sexual experiences with your actual peers, or at least young adults who seem capable of making rational decisions. But when the film’s obsessions are 18-year old nudity and anxiety over proper “adult” behavior, despite innate sexual urges, the signals are quickly crossed. On one hand, American Reunion invites you to look at Ali Cobrin’s glorious ta-tas, but with the other it slaps you for being immature enough to enjoy them. It’s a unique case of a film trying to have its cake and statutory rape it too.
Jim’s Dad was always on hand to contextualize the youthful antics of the American Pie series as cartoonishly over the top depictions of genuine youthful experimentation. The implication was that the events of the American Pie films were just contemporary versions of the sexual exploits that the audience’s parents once enjoyed, and that both time and maturity would eventually bring greater understanding, or at least mellow you out a bit. In American Reunion, the characters are old enough to understand these lessons on their own, but still act like grotesque buffoons, at least at the urging of the now-pathetic manchild Stifler, who still insists on living like a high schooler. It’s hypocritical that his friends would judge him harshly for this behavior, since the entire film is about recapturing that youthful vicariousness. Then again, it’s also about why they shouldn’t.
The message of the American Pie movies clearly indicates that sexual curiosity is normal, but that in the end we should all settle down with the safest relationship possible. For a series that seems to pride itself in the outré, its conventional attitude towards relationships has always seemed disappointingly backward. For example, the sexually-charged Michelle can’t seem to rekindle the amorous attentions of Jim, and ultimately resorts to light bondage, and somehow we’re actually expected to believe that such an incredibly open-minded character like herself wouldn’t have experimented with such conventional kink during a whole decade of marriage. In the end, their sexual difficulties are resolved in the most conventional, asexual way possible, while the much-sexier realities of shifting libidos and evolving erotic interests are ignored. “All this sex stuff is fun, “ American Reunion seems to say, “But wouldn’t it be nicer to settle down and not do any of it?” I’m just not sure that people buying tickets to a raunchy sex comedy are on board with that. Or maybe the goal is some kind of under-the-radar socially conservative brainwashing.
American Reunion left a taste in my mouth that was neither pleasant nor had anything to do with sex, but it’s not unwatchable. Many of the film’s isolated comedic asides are memorably chuckle inducing, particularly when the franchise’s many supporting players are revisited. The return of the MiLF Guys and the Sherminator are welcome, appropriately silly and utterly satisfying, perhaps because the films never tried to take them seriously in the first place. American Reunion tries so hard to be this generation’s The Big Chill that the very reason why it exists – sexy, gross out, adolescent fun – feels thoroughly out of place, and genuinely unsettling if you think about it in any substantial way. It would be nice to write that off by saying, “It’s just a comedy,” but it’s not anymore. If American Reunion wants us to take it seriously, we have to judge it on those terms, and that means it’s a confusingly conceived, strangely hypocritical drama with some occasionally hilarious moments. Let’s not RSVP for the next one.